In This Episode
What are the unique challenges facing women in politics? A first-time candidate who’s running to be a state legislator tells her story. Learn more: www.thewildernesspodcast.com
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[clip of Shirley Chisholm] I stand before you today as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States of America. I am not the candidate of Black America, although I am Black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman and I’m equally proud of that. I am the candidate of the people of America.
Jon Favreau: On January 25th, 1972, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm stood before a podium at Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn to announce her candidacy for president of the United States. The first Black woman elected to Congress, Chisholm also became the first African-American candidate to run for a major party’s nomination, and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s nomination. A former educator turned politician, her campaign slogan was “Unbought and Unbossed” and she lived up to it, following her own playbook without much help from party leaders who didn’t want her to run in the first place.
[clip of Shirley Chisholm] And my presence before you now symbolizes a new era in American political history. Those of you who have been neglected, left out, ignored, forgotten or shunted aside for whatever reason, give me your help at this hour. Join me in an effort to reshape our society and regain control of our destiny as we go down the Chisholm Trail with 1972.
Jon Favreau: In the end, she garnered just 152 delegates, but in the process, Shirley Chisholm ran a passionate campaign to unite a divided America, promising to combat poverty and discrimination, to be, in her words: a catalyst for change. At the time of her first election in 1968, she was just one of 11 women in a Congress with 535 people. And she was always aware of the influence her gender had on her time in office. In 1982, just before she left Washington, Chisholm told the Associated Press “I’ve always met more discrimination being a woman than being Black.” From day one of the Trump presidency, women have been raising their voices in unprecedented ways. A rare silver lining that’s followed the election of a misogynist president who’s bragged about committing sexual assault. Hillary Clinton may not have shattered that glass ceiling, but her law sure as hell inspired a generation of women who will undoubtedly finish what she started. We’re living in the midst of an historic wave of women running for all types of political office, from justice of the peace, to state legislator, to congressional representatives and governors. It’s a truly exciting time, but one that comes with certain obstacles, some as old as those faced by Shirley Chisholm, and some that are new to this era. So, in this episode, we’re going to take a look at the unique challenges facing women in politics, both on the campaign trail and once they’re in office. And we’ll get a special look at this through the experience of one woman in the fight right now. Anna Eskamani an Iranian American running for the state legislature in Florida. I’m Jon Favreau. Welcome to the Wilderness.
Kelly Dittmar: I think to talk about women’s political participation is to go way back to think about how they’ve been engaged politically in terms of activism and advocacy, but then to also recognize the barriers that they faced in having a voice in electoral, or what you would call formal politics in terms of voting, and then running for and holding elected office.
Jon Favreau: Kelly Dittmar is a professor of political science at Rutgers and a scholar at the school’s Center for American Women and Politics. She’ll be our guide through a brief history of the fight for women’s equality and inclusion in political life, a history that often begins in July of 1848 at Seneca Falls, New York.
Kelly Dittmar: So that’s where you have women and a few men in the room drafting a declaration of sentiments that calls out a number of grievances against the government that are tied to women’s lack of power. And one of those grievances and avenues toward gaining power that the women lay out is the possibility of being given suffrage, being given the right to vote.
Jon Favreau: 300 women, along with some men, convene for two days. In the end, their declaration of sentiments and resolutions extends beyond the right to vote into matters of property ownership, a right to an education, equal pay, more employment opportunities, and a general insistence on equality and liberty for women. To give you some context for the world in which many of these women were living in 1848, a woman’s husband represented her to the outside world. He controlled her body and in many states, any property she brought to the marriage. Women were defined by what would make them the best possible wives and mothers in ways both subtle and overt, they were encouraged to be passive and submissive. It was even deemed inappropriate for women to speak publicly before a crowd that included men and women. So it’s safe to say that not everyone was fully on board with the sentiments that came out of Seneca Falls.
Kelly Dittmar: Some people thought that politics was dirty and corrupt, and if women got involved, it would corrupt them. So there were women who felt like we’re making a difference by doing our philanthropic work, our volunteer work, our advocacy in other ways. They felt like they could have a sort of moral high ground in these political debates by not being part of the process, by not being at the ballot, that it would potentially reduce their political influence and power, interestingly enough. Others thought that women didn’t have the capacity, that women didn’t have the education or intellect. Others thought that it was not women’s role. So there are these really great advertisement from anti-suffrage organizations at the time. One classic one is a woman with her ‘Votes for Women sash’ you know, classic to the movement, and she’s literally juggling a pot and pan, a baby, a broom, and a ballot. And the idea was like, how could they do it? The actual text on that advertisement was: can she do it? And what’s interesting about that argument is that we see those same questions confront women in politics today. The idea that they can’t balance what are meant to be their private role, expectations or responsibilities, with a public role.
Jon Favreau: Good thing that was 170 years ago, and women never hear that kind of thing today. Right? But I digress. After Seneca Falls and the conventions that follow, the movement stalls out for a little while.
Kelly Dittmar: Historically and temporally is in the middle between 1848 and 1920, you, of course, have a civil war. So many of the women who were supporters of suffrage and again, men who were supporters of suffrage, also realized that there was a more urgent issue at hand, which was the abolishment of slavery.
Jon Favreau: Many in the suffrage movement were also strong abolitionists, and vice versa. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, for instance. And so, as Kelly mentioned, when the civil war breaks out, many women’s rights advocates put the cause on hold to fight for the abolishment of slavery. But in the years that follow the Civil War, things get more complicated. All those who are disenfranchised: Black men, Black women and white women are fighting for the right to vote. And many of the women in the suffrage movement are assuming the pre-war alliance will hold, that they’ll fight for those rights together. But that doesn’t happen, and it brings out some pretty ugly truths.
Kelly Dittmar: There are some women who held fairly racist beliefs, and said we shouldn’t be fighting for the right to vote for African-Americans, for slaves—instead, we should be fighting for this right for women. And that strategy was basically to say to Southerners, to white Southerners, if you allow white women to vote, then it will flood out the influence of Black men. And so it was very much pitting against the black community.
Jon Favreau: Of course, as history played out, the passage of the 15th Amendment granted Black men the right to vote in 1870, though it would take nearly a century for that right to be truly realized. Meanwhile, the women’s suffrage movement keeps fighting and wins a string of victories at the state level, securing women’s suffrage first in the territory of Wyoming. Over the next few decades, women’s suffrage spreads across several states and territories throughout the West. But the fight east of the Mississippi would only be won with the help of one key constituency: Black women.
Kelly Dittmar: If you tell the whole suffrage story, it really took not only the sort of mainstream women’s suffrage organization, it also took Black women’s organization to ensure that Black men within all of these states where they did have the right to vote, would support the ratification of the suffrage amendment. And that’s because for them, they saw it not only as something that Black women needed for themselves, but that they needed for their community, because they needed to protect against policies that you could see already, right, at that time were trying to disempower Blacks across the south and, quite frankly, across the United States.
Jon Favreau: Finally, in August of 1920, the 19th Amendment is passed by Congress and ratified by the states, granting women the right to vote.
Kelly Dittmar: Initially, all parties were concerned about, OK what influence will this influx of women voters have on the system. And so there was a responsiveness initially to efforts from the Women’s Joint Congressional Committee and some advocacy groups that were advocating for particular policies in the early 1920s. That influence died rather quickly because the parties realized that women weren’t voting at the high numbers that they thought they would. And that has to do with a lot of cultural reasons and constraints that women had on their participation.
Jon Favreau: Even after the 19th Amendment, not all women are able to exercise their right to vote, and many who did, felt pressured to vote in agreement with their husbands. On top of that, a lot of women are divided by party affiliation and various social issues, so they don’t vote in a unified bloc, as many male politicians had feared. And yet some women do succeed in politics during this period. In 1960, even before women have the right to vote nationally, Jeannette Rankin of Montana becomes the first woman elected to Congress. A noted pacifist, she’s the only member of Congress to vote against both World Wars. A handful of other women follow her to national office, though many enter through what’s called the Widow’s Pass—basically, they’re appointed after their husband dies in office. These women aren’t generally aligned on policy or party, but they are the first woman to face a set of challenges that pretty much all women face once they enter political life.
Kelly Dittmar: I don’t think there’s a uniform platform or even a uniform sort of way to present themselves per se. It wasn’t just women coming from one party, it was really a mix. What is more true across these candidates is that all of them were confronting a very male dominated system, and that meant that it changed both their experience as candidates, but also their experience once they were even in office, in that they sort of had to navigate different expectations that they confronted that were one, based on their gender, and then secondly, based on the expectations that voters just had of what political leaders look like, how they behaved. And voters couldn’t quite reconcile those expectations with their norms and expectations of what it meant to be a woman.
Jon Favreau: Sexism extended across every industry and facet of life. And many women were ready for a change, a change that finally came in the 1960s.
[voice clip] Women are made to feel guilty if they really use their minds. We really don’t know what women can do. [crowd cheering]
Jon Favreau: The women’s liberation movement, which gained steam in America and around the world, achieved a slew of cultural and political victories for women. There was JFK’s Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, headed by Eleanor Roosevelt. The passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which also included employment protections on the basis of sex. And the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which did away with the voting barriers that had for so long plagued Black men and women. Shortly after, several Black women rise to the national stage as Democrats. There’s Shirley Chisholm, whom we talked about earlier.
[clip of Shirley Chisholm] I have faith in the American people to recognize the talent, energy and dedication which all Americans, including women and minorities, have to offer.
Jon Favreau: And Barbara Jordan, the legendary congresswoman from Texas, who becomes the first African-American woman or man to represent a southern state since Reconstruction.
[clip of Barbara Jordan] We have a positive vision of the future, founded on the belief that the gap between the promise and reality of America can one day be finally closed. We believe that.
Jon Favreau: Voices like theirs pushed the Democratic Party to adopt the principles of the women’s movement. Around the same time, in 1972, is the fight over the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have enshrined in the Constitution equality under the law, regardless of sex. The amendment passed both houses of Congress, but failed to get ratified by the necessary three fourths of state legislatures. It’s a big defeat for women’s rights, but it also drew battle lines over family values and traditional gender roles that will continue to sort women across the country into different political parties. Those lines would harden even further after 1973, when the Supreme Court made a decision in Roe vs. Wade that legalized abortion in the United States.
Kelly Dittmar: Why did women start identifying more as Democrats? And what role did the party play in that? It is in large part due more to the agendas of the parties and their willingness to embrace some of the women’s rights agendas of the 1970s, where you start to see that ideological split. So that by 1980, the gender gap and partisanship clearly emerges, and then is consistent from 1980, the election of Ronald Reagan, it follows the defeat of the ERA by Phyllis Schlafly in the anti-ERA folks who then align very clearly with the conservative Republican. And then that really pushes that gender gap that we see to this day.
Rebecca Traister: The Democratic Party has been friendlier to women, right? There are more Democratic women in Congress than there are Republican women.
Jon Favreau: Rebecca Traister, who writes about women, politics and media.
Rebecca Traister: So by that measure, I guess it’s easier to be a Democratic woman. In theory, Democrats support policies that further empower non-white men, whether that is the protection or expansion of the social safety net of welfare, extending health care coverage to more people, raising minimum wages, protecting and expanding reproductive rights—all of those kinds of policy commitments are at their best about empowering people who have historically been disempowered in a country that has favored white men and their grip on power in almost every realm.
Jon Favreau: Of course, as Rebecca and Kelly point out, that hasn’t always worked out perfectly for women, now or back in the day.
Kelly Dittmar: It did not mean that the Democrats fully embraced and empowered women at that moment. In some regard, there are some people who would argue that it forced women into the Democratic Party on an issue and ideological base. And then the Democratic Party, again, talk about cooptation, didn’t have to do much to keep them. In some ways, you then have a struggle for women to be sure that they’re being given a voice and given power within the party. And again, I think that’s an ongoing struggle.
[clip of President George H.W. Bush] Judge Thomas’s life is a model for all Americans, and he’s earned the right to sit on this nation’s highest court and I am very proud indeed to nominate him for this position. And I trust that the Senate will confirm this able man promptly.
Jon Favreau: In July of 1991, President George H.W. Bush nominates Clarence Thomas to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. The confirmation process seems to be going off without a hitch until news reports surfaced of an interview that the FBI had conducted with Anita Hill, an attorney who’d worked with Thomas at both the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In the interview, Hill alleged that Thomas had repeatedly sexually harassed her during their time working together. The confirmation hearings are reopened and Hill is called to testify publicly.
[clip of Anita Hill] After a brief discussion of work, he would turn the conversation to a discussion of sexual matters. He spoke about acts that he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals and films showing group sex or rape scenes.
Jon Favreau: The Judiciary Committee for Anita Hill’s testimony consists of 14 white men whose questioning is pretty tough to listen to.
[clip from Judiciary Committee[ I’ve got to determine what your motivation might be. Are you a scorned woman? Do you have a martyr complex?
[clip from Judiciary Committee[ In fact, he never did ask you to have sex, correct?
[clip of Anita Hill] No, he did not ask me to have sex. He did continually pressure me.
[clip from Judiciary Committee[ You are not now drawing a conclusion that Judge Thomas sexually harassed you?
[clip of Anita Hill] Yes, I am drawing that conclusion that—
[clip from Judiciary Committee[ Well then I don’t understand.
Jon Favreau: Even Democrats seem tentative in their questioning.
[clip from Judiciary Committee[ You have described the essence of the conversation. In order for us to determine, well, can you tell us in his words, not yours, what he said?
[clip of Anita Hill] I really cannot quote him.
Jon Favreau: Biden, who was the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, gives in to the Republican members of the committee who want Clarence Thomas to testify before and after Anita Hill, which allows Thomas to argue and dismiss Hill’s testimony point by point. Women who corroborated Hill’s testimony with their own experiences are not permitted to testify before the panel. Instead, they submit their accounts of harassment by Thomas in written form. Biden later said that if he could do it again, he would have made sure those women got the chance to testify. The whole thing is an awful televised mess. Some people threaten Hill’s life, try to get her fired, and discredit her work. But the effects of the trial don’t end when Thomas is narrowly confirmed and takes a seat on the Supreme Court. Women across the country aren’t just outraged. They’re inspired to do something. The next year in 1992, more women are elected to Congress than at any point in American history, leading some commentators to call it the Year of the Woman. Sound familiar?
[voice clip] The Year of the Woman was clearly a momentous year for women from the trials of Anita Hill and the focus on sexual harassment to the election of more women at every level of public life.
[voice clip] Four women were elected to the U.S. Senate, bringing the total number to a record high of six.
[voice clip] Just a mom in tennis shoes.
[voice clip] Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer become the fifth and sixth women in the US Senate.
[voice clip] My tennis shoes are going back to the United States Senate to speak for thousands of families.
Kelly Dittmar: It’s not until 1992 when we talk about the Year of the Woman, that we see at least some significant increase and jump in women’s representation at the congressional level and at some state legislative levels across the country. So that year we saw somewhat of a jump. But remember, we doubled the number of women in Congress that year and we got up to a whopping 10%.
Jon Favreau: The election of 1992 also propels Bill and Hillary Clinton to the White House and marks the beginning of a complicated chapter for Democratic women. On one hand, there’s Bill Clinton’s relationship with the young White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, which leads to his impeachment in the House. Clinton doesn’t receive the kind of widespread condemnation we’d expect today. Even the legendary feminist Gloria Steinem writes a New York Times op-ed in his defense. But Al Gore later said that the president’s behavior was so damaging to the party’s reputation that it helped cost Gore the 2000 presidential election. On the other hand, the Clinton presidency helps elevate Hillary into the national spotlight, where she redefines the role of first lady.
[clip of Katie Couric] Why did you decide to have an office in the West Wing of the White House when all the first ladies before you have worked out of the East Wing?
[clip of Hillary Clinton] It made sense for me to be near the people that I would have to consult with and get information from so.
[clip of Katie Couric] Closer to where the action is.
[clip of Hillary Clinton] Closer to where the policy work is being done.
Jon Favreau: Shunning traditional gender roles, taking an active position on policy matters.
[news clip] First Lady Hillary Clinton was the super lady of Capitol Hill this week, testifying for 12 hours as commander in chief of the administration’s crusade for a national health insurance.
[clip of Hillary Clinton] I’m here as a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a woman, I’m here as an American citizen, concerned about the health of her family and the health of her nation.
Jon Favreau: And eventually running for the United States Senate in 2000 and winning.
[clip of Hillary Clinton] Three debates, two opponents and six black pants suits later, because of you, here we are.
Jon Favreau: That brings us to today in the aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s historic presidential candidacies in 2008 and 2016. Right now, there are a total of 107 women in Congress. Again, taht;s out of 535 members. Currently, six women are serving as governors. Of course, that’s out of 50. And if the 39 women who have ever held that title, not one of them has been an African-American woman. Hopefully Stacey Abrams of Georgia will change that in November. These numbers are low, very low. So we’re going to take a moment here to talk about the particular challenges facing women who run for office or currently hold office. Celinda Lake, long-time Democratic pollster, offers some important context for this moment.
Celinda Lake: We work with a Canadian firm comparing attitudes in Canada, in the United States, and they wanted to ask a question that they have used to predict sexism. And the question is: our society would be better off if the man were the master in his own home. And I said to them, oh, man, I really, I get what you’re getting at, I want to ask that question but can we modernize the language a little bit? Because I just think a whole bunch of Americans will not answer yes to that. And they said: no, no, no, this question really works, trust us. So we said: OK, we’ll ask it in Canada, the United States. 5% of Americans agreed with that statement that our society would be better off if the man were the master in his own house. 63% of American men agreed with that. 23% of Canadians agreed with that. 17% of Canadian women. So other than you and me, Jon, moving to Canada, we got a fix sexism in America. Isn’t that stunning?
Jon Favreau: It is. Stunning and sad. It makes you feel like we haven’t moved too far from the time of Seneca Falls, Kelly Dittmar talks about how this kind of sexism presents challenges for women in politics.
Kelly Dittmar: We all have expectations of what it means to be a man or woman. And those are gender stereotypes, right? So women are supposed to be more passive. They’re not as strong. But on a positive side, you know, they’re more honest, things like that. And those stereotypes persist. We also then have expectations that are tied to candidacy or office holding. If you look just at the presidency, right, arguably the most masculine office, we talk about our president as the first father of the nation, or as some of my colleagues would talk about it in terms of heroic masculinity, that they are sort of the heroes and the models of the nation, that they are the sole actors, they act alone and they embody some of these really traditional expectations of sort of patriarchal norms. Right? And so how do women fit into those roles? Well, we’re not particularly comfortable with women being the head of the household, or women being the sole person in charge. We are more comfortable with women being part of the group. Right? We’re more willing to have women be in a legislature making policy amidst a number of other people, including a number of other men, than we are with them being that sole decision maker.
Celinda Lake: It is much, much harder to elect a woman to executive office than it is to elect her to the legislative office. Much harder to elect a woman governor than a woman senator. And our hope had been, honestly, that Hillary Clinton was so clearly qualified and that she was kind of a unique woman and so that she would overcome run-of-the-mill everyday sexism.
Rebecca Traister: When Pat Schroeder was running, I believe it’s when she tried to run for president, but it could have been in one of her congressional campaigns—
Jon Favreau: Rebecca Traister, again,
Rebecca Traister: She’s running and somebody asks her, are you going to run as a woman? And she says, what choice do I have? And it’s a great line. I think of that line every time there’s this question of like, are you going to run as a woman? Are you going to emphasize that you’re a woman? And the answer and what you’re supposed to do strategically really depends on context, on the race. And that’s something that Hillary Clinton did not do in 2008, in part because she was being advised by Mark Penn and others who are like: don’t play the girl thing. Right? I mean, she says things like, we are going to break barriers but doesn’t say what those barriers would be or give any hint of what they might be, because she was really instructed.
[clip of Hillary Clinton] Now, this campaign has taken all of us into uncharted territory as a party, as a nation, as individuals. And yes, I think we can be both proud and grateful that we are breaking barriers and changing history for the good . . . Well, the question was: if Iran were to launch a nuclear attack on Israel, what would our response be? And I want the Iranians to know that if I’m the president, we will attack Iran, and I want them to understand that . . . we would be able to totally obliterate them.
Rebecca Traister: She talked like a tough guy. Like she said we can’t be patsies with China. It’s like she was running as Jimmy Cagney, and it didn’t create the emotional bond that you could sort of imagine could have been created if she’d said: look, we’re going to do this history-making thing together. It’s hard to understate the degree to which women in a public sphere are constantly coached to be in some way inauthentic, whether that means, like, put on a tough, confident face or, you know, don’t be too aggressive at work or—I mean, there are so many ways in which it is communicated to women in all kinds of fields, from childhood, that their acceptance in a public sphere is predicated on them acting in certain ways.
Jon Favreau: As we’ve talked about in a bunch of previous episodes, authenticity is key to a candidate’s success. And part of the reason Hillary had a hard time with that is because she was coached by certain advisers to be the female version of the same male leadership we’ve been used to for hundreds of years. In 2016, she tried to change that.
Kelly Dittmar: Hillary Clinton in 2008 is proving she’s tough and strong and ready to lead. She’s meeting voters expectations of toughness, presidential leadership. She’s not disrupting it. In 2016, she starts to present a different sort of identity that is more accepting of the fact that she’s a woman who can also do this job that has traditionally been given to men. And so, for example, one of the classic lines that I thought was telling in 2016 was when she said, I’m not asking you to vote for me because I’m a woman. I’m asking you to vote for me on the merits.
[clip of Hillary Clinton] Merits. And I think one of the merits is I am a woman and I can bring those views and perspectives to the White House,
Jon Favreau: But for many voters, it still wasn’t enough, and the political environment surrounding her candidacy certainly didn’t help.
Symone Sanders: Secretary Clinton was fighting the idea what we think female politicians should be.
Jon Favreau: Democratic strategist Symon Sanders.
Symone Sanders: And so if she ever raised her voice, if she didn’t smile enough, if she didn’t put on a dress or a skirt, if she didn’t do this and she didn’t say that, she didn’t seem caring. She didn’t seem thoughtful. Like no one is asking if Donald Trump seems thoughtful. Nobody cared if Bernie had a scowl on his face, but Secretary Clinton had a scowl on her face like, it’s a thing/
David Binder: You very seldom get people explicitly saying, I’m not going to vote for a woman because women are not qualified to do this. You do hear a couple of people say that, but it’s relatively rare.
Jon Favreau: David Binder, Democratic pollster,
David Binder: But you still hear subtle things that appear to indicate sexism, things like she sounds aggressive, she sounds harsh. When Donald Trump says idiot things, he’s tough, he’s strong. And when Hillary Clinton says things they don’t like, she’s arrogant, abrasive, brittle. There seem to be a gender basis in looking at two people behave the same way with adjectives that they used to describe.
Jon Favreau: As New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg reminds us, the sexism against Hillary wasn’t just coming from men, but also other women.
Michelle Goldberg: Particularly for married women. I think that there are a lot of women who find meaning and identity in traditional gender roles and feel maybe threatened when people say that a full life should encompass more than being a housewife and a mother. I think that there’s a lot of women who feel like, and have always felt like, Hillary Clinton, who once derided the social usefulness of baking cookies, looks down on them.
Jon Favreau: Hillary Clinton won 54% of the female vote. But when you break it down by race, Trump captured 53% of white women.
Rebecca Traister: We live in a country with minority rule. There is a segment of the population—white men—who for our entire history have had the vastly unequal share of power in political, economic, professional, social and sexual realms. The only way that minority rule persists is if you divide the majority. And how you divide the majority is by offering incentives to portions of the majority, trying to get them to support your rule. And so there are all kinds of incentives on offer to white women who are connected to white men, who are the people who have the disproportionate share of power in this country. I do not mean that all white men are powerful. I do not mean to look away from terrible white poverty and the challenges faced by white people in this country. But historically speaking, it has been white men who have had this disproportionate share, and white women who have enjoyed proximal advantage via their connections to white men. And so there are ways in which supporting the continued dominance of white men benefits white women, because it’s their husbands, their fathers, and then they, who, if white male power is protected, will be beneficiaries of that power, even if those white women are also oppressed or subjugated or demeaned or diminished by white men.
Jon Favreau: In so many ways, the 2016 election forced us to reckon with our notions of progress as a nation.
Symone Sanders: I do think that what this election did do, much like how after President Obama got elected during the election and after people realized we really didn’t live in this post-racial like world. Like, I think people definitely thought that, like, you know, of all the progress that we’ve made, women are clearly on better footing. Look at Hillary Clinton. And then just the types of remarks and the sexism she received, not just from like other candidates like Donald Trump, but even the news media. Folks would rip her apart.
[news clip] We saw her testify before Congress wearing the glasses she’s been wearing.
[news clip] She appeared with no makeup, natural hair and glasses. And the secretary makes no apologies.
[clip of Donald Trump] Well, she has a new hairdo. Did you notice that today? It was massive.
[news clip] She shouts.
[voice clip] Hillary, shouting her speech.
[voice clip] There is something unrelaxed about the way she is communicating.
[clip of Hillary Clinton] Wait, you want me to tell you what my husband thinks? My husband is not the Secretary of State. I am.
[clip of Donald Trump] She doesn’t have the look. She doesn’t have the stamina.
[clip of Hillary Clinton] So you ask my opinion. I will tell you my opinion. I’m not going to be channeling my husband.
Symone Sanders: And I think it’s very telling that a number of people who are extremely critical of Secretary Clinton became exposed as sexual predators in his national reckoning of MeToo.
[voice clip] So judgment is a key.
[voice clip] Temperament and judgment. Yes.
[voice clip] The word judgment has been used a lot around you, Secretary Clinton, over the last year and a half, and in particular, concerning your use of your personal email and server. You were communicating on highly sensitive topics. Why wasn’t it more than a mistake? Why wasn’t it disqualifying?
[speaker 1] She’s never explained what she’s apologized for. And it’s not, I think, the right standard for any presidential candidate.
[speaker 2] What do you want from her? Give us the apology that you want from her.
[speaker 1] Well, I want to understand if she thinks having a cavalier attitude towards the Freedom of Information Act, and protecting America’s secrets for our own convenience, were things that she did wrong.
Symone Sanders: I don’t think we will have this Me Too movement without Donald Trump. We wouldn’t be in this moment where we are so openly discussing gender roles in our society, sexual misconduct, white supremacy, even race, as blatantly as we’re discussing it. We would not be here without Donald Trump. And so on some level, I feel like Donald Trump had to be president so we can eventually get that female president that we will have. I don’t know. That sounds a little controversial, but it’s true. I think we will see a woman president in our lifetimes. I absolutely think so. I don’t think Hillary Clinton was a deterrent.
Rebecca Traister: She was the first to travel a presidential path by those measures. And that means that she and her role helped to adjust the eyes and ears of all of us to the idea of political leadership and potentially presidential leadership that doesn’t look the way it has always looked before this moment. And that means that the next generation of women who come and make the same attempts on the presidency, or on all kinds of other federal, state, local office, they’re going to have an entirely different audience that they’re talking to, because the audience is now acquainted with the idea of leadership that doesn’t have to look white and male. It changes the ground. It actually does alter the circumstances. I just wrote this piece about the unprecedented number of women who are running for state and local office and federal office all around the country, and one of the things that really stuck out is that there is a massive sea change right now in the advice that is being given to women as they think about running for office. What they are now told is: be who you are. There is a story about one woman running for office in Maryland who had purple dyed hair. And everybody said: oh, if you run for office, you have to undie your hair. And she did. And then people said: wait, that’s not who you are, uou’ve always had purple hair. So she died at back. I think you see a generation of women who are behaving completely differently, oratorically, rhetorically, in terms of the kinds of positions they can take on policy. And in part, that’s because Hillary broke the ground before them.
Jon Favreau: It’s a hopeful and grounding thought that from the ashes of Hillary Clinton’s defeat could rise thousands of women across the country who are inspired and emboldened to reshape our politics and our country as we know it. We’ll have the story of one such woman Anna Eskamani after the break.
Jon Favreau: We’ve been tracing the history of women in politics and society over the last two centuries. We’ve learned that the struggle for equality has been long, hard fought, and is far from over. But today, there’s fresh hope. As more women than ever are running for office in 2018, especially Democratic women, who have won a record number of primaries. One woman who’s breaking this ground is Anna Eskamani, a 27-year old Iranian American running for state legislator in Orlando, Florida. We spent a few days with Anna on the campaign trail where we learned more about the challenges she’s facing in her race to turn her district blue. For some additional context, you’ll hear more from Rebecca Traister throughout. Now, without further ado, here’s Anna.
Anna Eskamani: There’s a lot of research out there that talks about how many times it takes a woman to seriously consider running for office. Part of me was like, I’m not, I’m not necessarily needed in that capacity. I do good work. I’m having an impact from where I am. There’s other folks who are running for office and they’re, they’re making sure that we’ll be OK. And then, and then Trump won. So my priorities shifted completely.
[voice clip] All right. It’s about the three o’clock hour. Anna Eskamani is out of sight. Give it up. You want to give a few words to the folks. I don’t see why not. Seize the moment.
[clip of Anna Eskamani] How’s everyone doing today? My name is Anna Eskamani. I am actually running for Florida State House district 47. So I am your Democratic candidate right here from Hannibal Square. Knocking on doors in Hannibal Square, talking to voters. My job is to serve you in Tallahassee, but I also want to make sure that each one you are registered to vote. This election, we we’ve a lot on the line. I want to make sure that—
Anna Eskamani: If Hillary had won, I don’t think I would do this right now. I’m working full time. I’m getting my doctorate. And so, you know, if I was going to do it, it would have been nice to, like, take my time, be in a better financial situation. I was saving for a house. That’s kind of where my mentality was. Now, I’ll tell you, as I got to know the legislature better, I learned quickly that there are folks there that should not be there. [laughs] And that was another part of my decision is like: oh, OK, wait, these people are representing us in Tallahassee? What a joke. Like, why are they representing us? Did anyone running against them? Did anyone . . .? You know, I just began to kind of see: OK, you’re not untouchable, like you’re a person, just like I am. So my perception of what a politician should be changed. And then that helped shift the notion of what kind of people we need in office. And can that person be me? So I was driven by my own love for this community, my home, Orlando, and also a desire to be a model for women, but also for the Democratic Party. Because of my organizing background, my professional background, my roots in the community, you would think that the Democratic Party would look at me as a prospect. The party itself, they never even really reached out to me at all. And I heard rumors in Tallahassee that people were saying things about me in the sense of: she’s never going to raise enough money, watch, she won’t even raise 40,000, to the mayor of Orlando will never endorse her. And these are members of my own party that were doubting my ability to do this. So I felt like I was alone. I felt like I didn’t really have people that I could talk to in the beginning because they didn’t trust me to get the job done. I mean, they want to choose a winner. And the reality is, is that winners in the past have been defined as people who can self-fund, people in name ID, people who—that’s pretty much it, right? I don’t know. I mean, people who maybe fit the perspective of a politician would tend to be like handsome, tall, male and white.
Rebecca Traister: I think the challenges are often about money. Another one of the cultural messages sent to women from birth is about being very careful about asking for money. And here’s the thing a politician has to do. They’re also not necessarily, if they’re first time candidates, connected to wealth, and to the kind of networks that provide that fundraising support. So one of the things that’s happening in 2018 that is very challenging for many of the women and many women of color, and because we have such a shoddy history of electing women of color to office at every level, they are viewed as risky candidates. And we’re talking here in terms of economic investment, which is sick in its own right. But that is, when you’re talking about donors, that’s part of what these organizations are thinking about. Do you throw money into candidacies, and do you think that you’re going to get some kind of decent rate of return.
Anna Eskamani: In 2016, the party was trying to recruit a well-known and much more wealthy, like white man to run for the seat. So, and that was 2016. Not that long ago. So, you know, I don’t fit the box of what a winner looks like.
Rebecca Traister: Let me tell you, a lot of these campaigns, even candidates who are going to lose, are going to change the way that our democracy becomes more fully-realized as a representative democracy, because it’s going to change people’s ideas about who might be their representative
[woman] The last gallery on the right.
Anna Eskamani: OK, thank you. We are at the Museum of Fine Art at Rollins College, which is a liberal arts school here in District 47.
Anna Eskamani: Hello.
[woman 2] A celebrity guest. And you’re Iranian, right?
Anna Eskamani: I am.
[woman 2] Isn’t your family Iranian? So we’re talking about this amazing Iranian artist.
Anna Eskamani: Are you kidding me? Of course, she’s written books too. And documentary films. Yeah. Y.
[woman 2] Yeah. So this is Anna Eskamani everybody.
Anna Eskamani: Hi. Hi.
[woman 2] We’re just talking about the revolution and 1979. Do you want to say anything about your, like as a cultural insider?
Anna Eskamani: Yeah, I’m happy to. Hi everyone. So my family is Iranian. This is really pretty incredible to see. My parents came from two different parts of Iran, but they met in Orlando.
Anna Eskamani: My story is the American story. And it was my mom who really made sure we knew that. My dad was actually a little more shy about his identity. My dad never told anyone he was Iranian. Being an immigrant family, like we were encouraged not to draw attention to ourselves, like just to keep to ourselves, not cause trouble, keep your head down, get your schoolwork done, get a good job, raise a family. I was never shy about my cultural identity. 9/11 changed that. When 9/11 happened, all of a sudden in my brownness was a problem. And I had classmates who would ask me if I was related to Osama bin Laden, if I was his daughter. I realized being brown was different, not necessarily in a good way,
[woman 3] Like has being from Iran. And has having family from Iran and the current political climate, has that inspired you to run or inspired you to get into politics?
Anna Eskamani: Yes. That’s a great question. So there’s a quote that many, especially Iranian women, philosophers often refer to, and that being political is innate to being Iranian. Because you have a country that has really been tarnished by politics and the value of voting in a free country versus voting in Iran where elections are stolen, was also very important. And I would go to the polls with my parents and just watch them vote.
Anna Eskamani: Because we were working class, there wasn’t time to get political. We watched the debates. I remember watching those very clearly and I remember Monica Lewinsky happening and, you know, watching the news on that, and I and my mom’s citizenship ceremony in Miami. But it was when I got to UCF, the University of Central Florida, where really bit my teeth into organizing and started thinking about the operational side of civics. So it was the summer of 2010 where I was a vice president of the Iranian student organization, my sister was this year was president. We were doing human rights petitions. I was like: all right, I’m ready, I’m going to register to vote to be a Democrat. The following year, I became the Chairwoman of the Florida College Democrats Women’s Caucus for the statewide organization, and then was also serving as the vice president of the College Democrats at UCSF, with my twin sister, who was president. And we just kicked ass. We kicked complete ass. And we had a team that helped us do it. But we registered 11,000 students to vote within that year. That’s when it really happened. College Democrats, you know, became my family and that’s where I grew as a leader. I mean, whether it was abortion access, equal work for equal pay, domestic violence, it was women’s issues as a whole. I mean, the dynamic of safe and legal access to abortion was very important to me because I could, I could relate to, I remember my mom talking about having an abortion. And the idea of my mother having to walk a picket line in this free country, coming from a country like Iran, and having to go through this type of harassment to access what should be a safe legal procedure, really pissed me off. When I was about to graduate, the incoming CEO of our Planned Parenthood affiliate reached out to me, and she offered me a job. It’s wild to think that I’ve been involved a Planned Parenthood for about ten years now. And my Planned Parenthood story is that of many American women, that’s as a patient. So because my mother passed away, I had no one to talk to again about reproductive health, dating, any of that kind of stuff. And I had abstinence-only education at my public school that put me in a place of deep confusion and anger. If anything, it was, it was shaming and disempowering. So I found Planned Parenthood through a Google search, and when I was 18-years old, walked in to make my first appointment for birth control. Being Iranian-American and working at Planned Parenthood are perhaps seen as a weakness versus a strength. But I would argue that it’s actually really exciting for voters and voter support Planned Parenthood, they support diversity and they’re excited for it. And I am proof because we’ve raised a quarter million dollars. Right? Of me just being myself.
Rebecca Traister: It’s very recent that we’re telling women from the time they’re young: just go be who you are! It’s hard to shut out all that noise, especially when the act of running for office is reliant on making people like you, and women are told all the time that there’s one reason or another that they’re not likable, or that they’re not taken seriously. And so asking them to just tune all of those messages out, and just like: be who you are, go, I’m turning the camera on. It’s a hard thing to do, but there are people who are good at it.
Anna Eskamani: People know where I’m coming from. I wear my values on my sleeve. I mean, I’ve been vulnerable and honest my entire life. And so, and I think people really admire that and they connect with that. So even if we’re going to disagree, we can still have a conversation and maybe try to find some common ground. And that’s always been who I am. And I think that that’s what is so attractive to our campaign. You know, we operate with a deep sense of ethics and authenticity, and both are lacking in politics today, and both are lacking in the Democratic Party today. And so we’re bringing that back.
Anna Eskamani: Hello. How are you? How are you? This is so beautiful, you have a beautiful home.
Sally Hewitt: I’m Sally Hewitt and just, you know, a local citizen and hosting a fundraiser for Anna because I feel like she’s our hope for the future, and we just oh, God knows we need somebody like her and just hope that we can turn the tide of this awful wave in this country of where we’re going politically and socially and culturally. And the fear of people who are not them, who don’t fit into their nice white simple box. That’s what I’m hoping will work.
Rebecca Traister: I was down in Georgia’s sixth around the Ossoff race. There was this wild energy of these women-led grassroots groups. A lot of Indivisible, a local group called Pave it Blue. And they were, it wasn’t only women, but it was definitely dominated by and led by, in many cases, suburban women, not all white, but it was a predominantly white district in some of the activist areas. Women who had not been politically engaged before this, who were sort of shocked out of their stupor by Donald Trump’s win, and who were now dedicating their lives, all their hours, all their time. They weren’t like, they were neglecting their jobs, they were not cooking for their families—like it was a total uprooting of their lives to knock doors for Jon Ossoff, to work their asses off for this campaign. It was fascinating. I mean, I went down there to report and found it was like being on the set of Thelma and Louise. Like, these women were angry and they were saying things to me like I’m out of the closet as a progressive. I’m out of the closet as a Democrat in this state, in this area that was historically very red. I’m blue and I’m proud. I’m never going back to who I was before. And they were coming up with all these kind of grassroots ideas.
[woman] So we’re going to do the sixth at eleven. What time will you get here?
Anna Eskamani: What time do you want to see?
[woman] How much did you need? Do you need like an hour?
Anna Eskamani: An hour to set up. Yeah.
[woman] OK, that’s fine.
Anna Eskamani: There’s just so much on the line for this election, and not just for Americans across the country, but for women to set a tone that we’re ready to not just throw a hit in the ring, but we’re ready to demand more. You know, I still get a few male supporters who are, who feel threatened by the Me Too movement in particular and think that, like, men are under attack. And I have to, I actually had a man ask me—and again, it’s the people who support me—but I had a man ask me at a house party, what am I doing to appeal to white men? And, you know, my response is: what are we not doing? Like everything we’re advocating for support people of all backgrounds, including white man. I’ve always had a firm grasp that women are treated poorly in politics, whether they are interns, lobbyists or lawmakers. Women have to work twice as hard to be considered worthy to be present in politics. I’ll even tell you, like I was a Democrat, being in environments where sometimes I’m the only woman in the room, or I have to fight to be heard, or those around me are patronizing. I mean, you can walk in the halls of Tallahassee and be easily looked up and down. Like as an object. I think electing more women, especially Democratic women, is going to make it better because then young girls and boys who grow up are going to see women in positions of power and it’s going to become normal. So the more women we can elect this year, it’s going to be a game changer, and the more women we elect at all levels of government, because I mean, I’m running for Florida House. I’m building a bench, and the first day that I’m in Tallahassee, I’m going to think about who my replacement is.
Rebecca Traister: Everybody has to get better and less scared if we’re going to make this move on that hopeful correction to the founding principles. If we’re going to actually make the move, we got to make the move, and say we’re making the move and say we want to change what this country is built on. And that means altering who gets to have power within it. And that is what we stand for. And it doesn’t mean punishing those who’ve had power, but it does mean expanding who can have more, who can have a share. Who’s part of this compact that is America. And we have to not be shy about saying that anymore.
Anna Eskamani: Power is not a scarce resource. It is to be built collectively. There’s enough of it to go around and that’s the foundation of our campaign, is people power. And it’s so incredible because it means that when I get to Tallahassee, I don’t have to be beholden to anyone but the people. And I hope that redefines like what it means to be in public service, but also what it means to be a Democrat. I feel so free because of it. Because I can be myself, I can share our stories, I can let the voices of my district, it’s literally I’m held account with the people, and I’m pretty sure that’s the point of democracy. Oh, yeah, we’re going to win, we’re going to win.
Jon Favreau: The Wilderness is written and directed by me, Jon Favreau of Crooked Media. It’s produced by Zach Akers and Skip Bronkie of Two Up, and Ruth Lichtman, Tanya Somanader of Crooked Media is our co-producer. Andrea B. Scott is our editor, and David Fox is our assistant editor. Our archival producer is Rebecca Kent, and our archival researcher is Gianna Jefferson. Music by Marty Fowler. Sound design and mixing by Joel Robbie. Tracy Lien is our lead interviewee researcher. Additional writing from Zach Akers and Andrea B. Scott. John Maynard and Dan Kelly were our recording engineers. Fact checking by Anna Altman. Promo segment editing from Allison Grasso. Agency services from Ben Davis at WME. Legal services from Dean Bahat at Ziffren Brittenham and Chad Russo at Ramo Law. Clearance counsel is Kathryn Alimohammedi from Donaldson + Califf. And special thanks to Brit Hansen, our field producer in Orlando with Anna Eskamani. Thanks for listening.